Ethnomusicology: The Contemporary Use of Tuvan Overtones in Western Music

Dr. Tran Quang Hai
National Center for Scientific Research, Paris, France

A considerable amount of research has been conducted on contemporary overtones during the past 40 years. This research has been conducted throughout the world, and in particular, investigates this vocal phenomenon as it is practiced in Mongolia and Tuva. In Mongolia and Tuva, the word “Khoomei”, means pharynx, throat, while “Khoomeilakh” describes the technique of producing vocal harmonics. This most unusual technique, which takes the human voice to its limits, entails the production of two sounds simultaneously creating a drone or fundamental that is rich in harmonics and reminiscent of the Jew’s harp (and is the reason why this technique is also known as “Jew’s harp voice”). This technique is strenuous for the performer according to Mongolian singers. The performer must tauten his muscles and swell his cheeks. Different sounds are obtained by varying the air pressure across the vocal folds, the volume of the mouth cavity, and tongue placement. In this way, variable pitch harmonics are pro­duced to form the melody. The fundamental is produced in the back of the throat, passing through the mouth, and exiting through the slightly parted lips and to a lesser extent through the nose.

The overtone singing or throat voice or khoomei is now very popular and widespread throughout the world. Why has this vocal phenomenon become so fascinating? This paper is composed of three parts: 1) some historical indications, 2) overtones in the Western world, and 3) the rebirth of overtones in Tuva.

By the end of the 1960’s, overtone singing had become a subject of tremendous interest to anthropolo­gists, musicologists, acousticians, ethnomusicologists, phoniatricians, and Western composers in Europe and the United States. An increasing number of concerts were performed by Mongolian and Tuvin singers, with more scientific articles written by researchers, and more musical creations from Pop, Rock, Jazz, Avant Garde music, are the signs of the exceptional worldwide interest in this musical technique.

Some historical indications

In 1964, the Russian composer Aksenov published his important article on Tuvin music in which the throat singing was described thoroughly. This article was translated into German, then into English in 1973. One of the first LP recordings of Tuvin throat singing was collected by Vyachelav Shurov and published by the Russian record company Melodia.

At the same period, concerning Tibetan Buddhist chanting with the presence of overtones, Huston Smith and Kenneth Stevens wrote an article on overtones in Tibetan chanting in the magazine American Anthropologist in 1967 and a record on Tibetan music was released in 1979 by the American record company Anthology Records in New York.

In 1967 the Hungarian musicologist Lajos Vargyas went to Mongolia to record Mongolian music. A double LP album with substantial notes in five languages was released in 1971 by the Hungarian record company Hungaroton under UNESCO sponsorship.

Overtones in the Western World (Europe and the United States)

Composer Karl Stockhausen (born in 1928), a German composer of avant garde music, wrote the com­position “Stimmung”, in which overtones were introduced and sung by a small vocal ensemble com­posed of six voices; this was the first occasion in which these overtones were used in Western contem­porary music. The piece was performed for the first time in 1968 in Europe. In 1988, Tran Quang Hai trained six vocalists to present Stimmung at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Angers, France.

In the United States, Julius Eastman in 1971, the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble in 1972 in California, and the Prima Mateia directed by Roberto Laneri in San Diego, California developed the first music creations with overtones based on improvisation.

We can notice that female singers and composers were present during the beginning of the overtone development in the West. Joan La Barbara in the United States performed her composition with over-tones as in “Voice Piece: One Note Internal Resonance Investigation” in 1974. Meredith Monk, in 1976, in her “Songs from the Hill”, used some overtones in a small sequence. The group Prima Materia guided by Roberto Laneri performed the musical piece for three male singers and one female singer in “Tale of the Tiger”, edited in 1978 in San Diego, California. The author of this article is at the same time a performer and scientist in the overtone field. My discovery of overtones was in 1969 when I lis­tened to a recording from Mongolia made by Roberte Hamayon in 1967 in Ulan Bator. I took a few years to master this vocal technique before spreading it all over Europe and the world later on. In this regard I was the first person who used overtones in an electro-acoustical composition namely Vê Nguôn (Return to the Sources) composed by Nguyen Van Tuong with my collaboration as performer and co- composer. It was in 1975 with the world premiere in Champigny sur Marne, in the suburbs of Paris. The 1989 film “The Song of Harmonics”, directed by Hugo Zemp, is a film showing physiologi­cal and acoustical aspects of overtones with the use of X-rays and sonagraphs. This film received four international prizes for its pedagogic, scientific, musical and entertaining aspects. His experimental research on overtones has brought new techniques to the traditional way of singing harmonics. Since 1990, he has combined Jazz, World, and Improvised music to overtones, and has made CDs with over-tones created by the Australian didgeridoo as well as with Jew’s harps.

The Greek singer Demetrio Stratos was one of the virtuosos of voice. He discovered overtones when he came to the Music Department of the Musee de l’Homme to have one lesson with the author of this article in 1977. He then applied this new vocal technique to his creations through the record “Cantare la Voce”. His performances generated high interest throughout Europe. Unfortunately, he died in 1979.

Jill Purce, one of the first female singers who took part in the creation of Stockhausen’s “Stimmung” has given workshops of overtones and has used overtones as a healing voice to cure certain psychologi­cal illness.

Michael Vetter of Germany and David Hykes of the United States are the two individuals who have developed the art of overtone singing to a higher level, distinctly different from the way of singing in Mongolia and Tuva. Michael Vetter worked with Karl Stockhausen during the preparation of the piece “Stimmung” and afterwards created his group, the Oberton Choir, and went on to establish a school of overtones in Germany. One of his students, Christian Bollman, is very gifted and has become the leader of the Dusseldorf Oberton Choir. 20 years later, this choir is known throughout Europe and has recorded a wide range of CD’s.

Michael Reimann, another German overtone singer, has written a book in German on overtones. Diem Groeneveld wrote a book in Dutch describing the method of producing overtones.

David Hykes is one of the best-known American overtone singers. He created the Harmonic Choir in New York in 1975 with the assistance of Timothy Hill. This choir included other participants such as Theodore Levin, who became an ethnomusicologist in later years, and two female singers and two male singers. The most fantastic LP record “Hearing The Solar Wind” (A l’ecoute du Vent Solaire) was published by the record company OCORA in Paris in 1983, and became the number one best selling record of overtones. David Hykes innovated new techniques of overtones with the idea of creating many layers of overtones, thereby giving a polyphonic aspect to the composition. He has pub­lished numerous LP records and CD’s. Recently, he has begun combining Iranian rhythms and Indian modes into his compositions with the use of overtones.

In Australia, Sarah Hopkins is the first female composer to create choral music with overtones after studying overtones with Chrisitan Bollmann in Germany. She is also a fine performer and an accom­plished teacher of overtones.


The first performers in the Western World to use the ascending and descending overtones to create the sound effects were especially notable in the new age music of relaxation and meditation. Some per-formers used overtones in improvisation. Later, the idea of creating melodies came to their minds as inspired by the progress of overtone singing; many records were subsequently released. In Western contemporary music, groups of singers have also succeeded in emitting two voices at the same time, and vocal pieces have been created in the context of avant-garde music and of electro-acoustical music. In 1975 David Hykes, with his Harmonic Choir in New York, used the overtones to link with the cos­mic universe in his compositions. Demetrio Stratos (1945-1979), in which he used overtones to create the relationship between voice and subconscious. In my compositions for improvised music, I recom­mend the investigation of overtones to enrich the world of sound. Other overtone singers such as Michael Vetter, Christian Bollmann, Michael Reimann of Germany, Roberto Laneri of Italy, Rollin Rachele of the Netherlands, Josephine Truman of Australia, Les Voix Diphoniques, Thomas Clements, Iegor Reznikoff, and Tamia of France have also used overtones in their works.

Valentin Clastrier, a French hurdy-gurdy player, combined overtones with the sounds of hurdy-gurdy with fascinating results; similarly, Bojidar Pinek of Yugoslavia mixed overtones with Indian tampura, while Thomas Clements of France exploited overtones in Jazz and Rock music and Steve Sklar of the United States, developed overtones in rock music.

In this same movement, the British Massive Attack brought Tuvan overtone singing to elegant dance clubs with the song “Karma-Coma” which uses a variation of a khoomei style. In Canada, Kiva is an accomplished female overtone singer who combines overtones with normal singing and with keyboard or piano. Fatima Miranda of Spain, another female singer of contemporary improvised music, uses overtones as an element of her vocal techniques and produces exceptional high-pitched overtones. Makigami Koichi of Japan, a participant in the Khoomei Festival in Kyzyl in 1995, combines tradition­al Japanese music and theatre with avant-garde experimentation using some low overtones, while Iegor Reznikoff, a specialist of Gregorian chanting, uses overtones in his Gregorian- style composition “Liturgie fondamentale: grand magnificat”, utilizing the natural reverberation of the cavernous and melodious space of the interior of the Cistercian church, the Abbaye de Thoronet.

The opera Noach (‘Noah’) by Dutch composer Guus Janssen, had its world premiere at the Holland Festival in June 1994; the opera’s alternative choir consisted of four excellent Tuvan throat singers whose operatic voices were punctuated now and then by overtones by four Tuvin throat singers.

In may 1999 the experimental theatre Odin Teatret, under the direction of Eugenio Barba in Denmark, presented Eugenio Barba’s play “Mythos” in which overtones singing was an important element. Rollin Rachelle is an excellent American overtone singer, and his latest CD “Harmonic Divergence” demon­ strates his talent as both a composer and performer in the realm of overtones. His book, which is accompanied with a CD, is considered to be one of the best books on the instruction for those learning overtone techniques. Arjopa, a female singer from Germany, published the book “Choomii –das Mongolische Obertonsingen” (Choomi – the Mongolian Overtone Singing) in Germany in 1998.

Rebirth of overtone singing in Tuva

After a long period of slow progress, overtone singing suddenly flourished in Tuva. Famous Tuvin singers such as Gennadi Tumat, Kongar Ondar, Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, and Mergen Mongush have contributed to the diffusion and development of overtone singing (Khoomei) outside of Tuva. Later, differ­ ent vocal groups such as the Tuva Ensemble, Huun Huur Tuu, and Shu De became famous not only for their overtones, but also for their participation in both world and fusion music .

The three world conferences and the Festival of Throat Voice (Khoomei) were organized in the city of Kyzyl in Tuva in 1992 ; additional festivals followed in 1995 and 1998, and each event inspired a gathering of a worldwide array of overtone specialists, along with the best Tuvin overtone singers. Mongolian, Bachkir, Gorno Altaian, European, American, and Japanese overtone singers converged during these festivals and spread a fresh new musical breeze throughout Tuva.

The Tuvin group Huun Huur Tuu sang with the famous Mysteries of Bulgarian Voices, while the Kronos Quartet collaborated with the Tuva Ensemble. The Tuvin group Yatkha brought Punk music to Tuvin’s exposure to new music thanks to their use of very low overtones sung by Albert Kuvezin. Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, who joined Russian pianist and accordionist Aleksei Levin, Vladimir Volkov from Saint Petersburg and Mola Sylla from Senegal, to create the mixed group, Vershki da Koreshki, to create a blending of overtones and jazzy African music. Since the early 1990’s Tuvin female singer Sainkho Namchylak has developed Tuvin folksongs and overtones in free jazz and improvised music, and has become very well known in the Western world.

This short presentation, which follows khoomei from the beginning of its development on through its growing use today, illustrates the world interest in this important vocal phenomenon.


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TRAN QUANG HAI & GUILOU, D. 1980: “Original Research and Acoustical Analysis in Connection with the Xöömij Style of Biphonic Singing”, Musical Voices of Asia : 162-173, The Japan Foundation (éd), Heibonsha Ltd, Tokyo.
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Tuva- Echoes from the Spirit World , Pan Records, PAN 2013CD, Leiden, Hollande, 1992.
Musiques Traditionnelles d’Asie centrale/ Chants harmoniques Touvas , Silex Y 225222, Paris, France, 1995.
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Overtones in the Western World: (only on CD)

ARJOPA: Choomii – das Mongolische Obertonsingen, Zweitausendeins BA 18292, booklet in German (48p), Frankfurt, Germany, 1999.
SAINKHO : Sainkho – Out of Tuva, Cramworld CRAM 6 CD, Austria, 1993.
FATIMA MIRANDA : Fatima Miranda / Las Voces de la Voz, Unio Musics C.D. 5, Madrid, Spain, 1992.
SARAH HOPKINS: Reclaiming the Spirit / Sarah Hopkins, New World Productions NWCD 777, Red Hill, Queensland, Australia, 1994.
CHRISTIAN BOLLMANN : Drehmomente/ Neue Meditative Musik,Lichthaus-Musik, Numbrecht, Germany, 1990.
MICHAEL REIMANN : Evolution / Christian Bollmann and Michael Reimann, Lichthaus Musik, Numbrecht, Germany, 1998.
MICHAEL REIMANN : Unendlicher Klang, Tgf Records 97.080, Austria, 1993.
MICHAEL VETTER: Ancient Voices / Michael Vetter and the Overtone Choir, Amiata Records ARNR 0192, Seggiano, Italy, 1992
ROLLIN RACHELE : Rollin Rachele / Harmonic Divergence: Explorations in Overtone Singing, Cryptic Voices Productions CV 50003, USA, 1999.
DAVID HYKES : Hearing Solar Winds, OCORA , France, 1989.
DAVID HYKES/ True to the Times / How to be ?, New Albon Records NA057CD, USA, 1993
TONGEREN , M. Van 1995 : "A Tuvan Perspective on Throat Singing", in Van Zantan Wim and Van Roon Marjolijn (editors), Oideion2: The Performing Arts World-Wide : 293-312, Leiden.
TONGEREN, M. Van 2002: Overtone Singing - Physcis and Metaphysics of Harmonics in East and West, 1 accompanying CD, 271 pages, Amsterdam: Fusica. website:

Sincere thanks to Mark Van Tongeren's articles which inspired mainly my present article.

Editor’s note: Dr. Tran Quang Hai has published numerous articles on overtones (including the publication of 15 articles exclusively devoted to overtone research), and is recognized as one of the world’s most accomplished overtone specialists.

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